CLEVELAND -- The stakes for President Obama could not be higher in this liberal bastion, an economically hard-hit region in the nation's premier battleground where the incumbent needs a massive turnout to prevail on Nov. 6.
For Obama, this area is a firewall that could offset likely gains by Republican Mitt Romney throughout other stretches of Ohio -- but fault lines have emerged.
Early voting, touted as Obama's secret weapon in the Buckeye State, is down nearly 10 percent in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, compared to the same time in 2008. Even before Hurricane Sandy ushered in nasty rain, early turnout was lagging behind the benchmark it set four years ago, local election figures show.
Politically speaking, the failure to turn out a vote in this Democratic fortress is almost as good as casting a vote for Romney. And even while the number of Democrats voting early is down, there are indications that some of those who are voting are crossing over to Romney instead.
"I come from a Democratic family, a union family," said Dave Koler, an information technology program manager from North Royalton. "The first debate was a real swing for me. This might be the first time that I actually go Republican."
Koler doesn't feel like he's the only one.
"We had a lot of people who voted four years ago for Obama who I don't think are going to show up this time," he said.
In 2008, Obama won Cuyahoga County by 258,000 votes, just shy of his winning margin for the entire state. With Romney in better position in Ohio than the 2008 Republican contender, Sen. John McCain, Obama's turnout effort in Cuyahoga grows in importance, analysts said.